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Episode 2013: the imperial system strikes back

Small boy with a measuring tape and pencil

The imperial measurement system is not just still alive – it may be staging a comeback, according to reports. Should school children be taught to use both imperial and metric measurements?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is apparently making plans to reintroduce the teaching of imperial units in schools. The draft curriculum for England is set to teach pupils how to convert between imperial and metric

I can see some logic for doing this in maths classes; the interview for my first job in a DIY chain had questions on converting feet into centimetres. My customers were a real mix of imperial and metric users, but I don’t recall imperial being taught at school. My knowledge was probably more down to my ruler using both measurements – it was a 12″ one with a rather odd 31cm on the other side.

So, should we just ditch imperial and spend time teaching kids about something else? JD Baines told us on our last imperial vs metric debate:

‘Few teachers now understand imperial, whereas in schools in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s decimal was taught in schools alongside imperial. One was taught the conversion factors as well, which were “simplified” on the official decimalisation on the UK – thus one could not go to a timber yard and get 50mm x 100mm – it was still 2″×4″. (50mm x 100mm is actually smaller!).’

Wavechange offered an alternative solution:

‘I am happy for kids to learn about imperial measures – but it should be in history classes.’

Your thoughts on the imperial march

When we last had a conversation about measurement systems, almost half of the voters in our poll thought we should ditch imperial units altogether, while a third thought we should keep our current mix. Over a fifth preferred a return to imperial. Some of the comments showed hard lines on the debate. Seares was ready to go metric; ‘It’s about bloody time.’

While David Ramsay spoke for imperial users:

‘NOOOOOOOOOO. I will refuse to use anything other than imperial and will ask for all purchases to be measured accordingly.’

John Knox was equally emphatic:

‘Imperial all the way! I still do everything pretty much in imperial. You know that the jars of jam and honey, etc. you buy are a pound in weight in the supermarket despite them putting the diabolical French measurements on instead.

‘A pint of milk is still a pint of milk and same for beer! We also know our quarter-pounder and half-pounder burgers!’

Popular abroad, the metric system is

The UK is not the only place to have converted from imperial to metric. Michael Glass offered a viewpoint from a country far, far away:

‘As an Australian I find all this angst about metrication quite appalling. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and a whole lot of other countries changed without all this fuss and bother.’

Seares thinks we should go Dutch:

‘I’m in Holland – there doesn’t seem to be any problem here with metric, and they still have their own culture (and cheese). Why would we alone in our island lose our ‘nationality’ or ‘history’ or whatever if we used the system most other countries do?’

Finally, Swanseasteve pointed out that Sandringham listed its size in hectares:

‘If metric values are good enough for the Queen they’re good enough for us!’

What are your thoughts? Is the proposed move to teach imperial putting the best foot forward or taking us back by miles?

Should imperial measurements be taught in schools?

No, it's time to go fully metric (51%, 287 Votes)

Yes, they are helpful for daily life (38%, 215 Votes)

Only if they are taught in history lessons (11%, 60 Votes)

Total Voters: 566

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This move should highlight the issue and hopefully bring pressure on this government or the next government to complete the task of metrication, which has been dragging on for far too long. Many of the reasons for metrication have been given in the previous Conversation.

I suspect that most of those in favour of keeping imperial measurements are over 50. I suspect that those under 30 will be strongly in favour of metric units.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

A recent poll showed that it was the late teens to 20-somethings who preferd imperial with women scoring higher than men. I keep hearing about ‘the next generation will…’ etc yet after a few generations we see an increase in imperial usage. Accidental EU link maybe?

Sue Sergeant says:
13 January 2013

About time too

This makes sense to me. I’m sure the pro/anti-metrication lobbyists will use this as yet another bandwagon for them to jump onto, in furtherance their own narrow agendas. But try to think of it from the perspective of the children’s education, not yours.

The successful amongst today’s children will work in a world-wide economy. Whilst I don’t see benefit in teaching the minutiae of rods and furlongs, bushels and pecks, they will come into contact with other cultures. Much of North America still uses (US) Imperial units. Many businesses and their suppliers are still working in feet, inches, gallons, cups, pounds and ounces.

As an ex-teacher, I know that it is difficult to teach abstract concepts to children and that learning needs to be relevant to their surroundings. Since they still arise in everyday life, Imperial measures are a useful introduction to learning that the base-10 number system is not the only, or even the best way to count. Apart from humans having ten fingers, it has very little to commend itself. Computers use binary for good reason and number bases that have more factors than 2 and 5 are useful in all sorts of ways. And don’t get me started on how to teach simple fractions using the metric system.

No knowledge is wasted in my view and people are too quick to make assumptions about the rest of the world falling into line with their own methods and beliefs. Although I carry out my work in millimetres in the UK, I was grateful on a recent business trip to Canada that I could easily pick up and work with designs in inches, written in French. Who would have thought … ?

Canada still works in inches? Well knock me down with a quill pen.
They changed over in 1970, but as in UK there are those who will never accept this.
Are you sure they did not have to convert all your inches into cm after you left?

>>> Are you sure they did not have to convert all your inches into cm after you left? <<<

Quite sure. As I said above, some people find it hard to believe that their's isn't the only "right" way to do things!

Seems this is another example of an over-egged piece of news. To my eyes teaching the equivalency of metric to imperial is a fairly simple one hour exercise.

I am not suggesting that imperial needs more than that and unless someone is ready to provide details of how much time would be a requirement under the curriculum this is a duff conversation.

The logic of it I find reasonable as not only is there mph to be considered but our language and history is full of allusions which will make no sense unless students have a vague idea what is being referred to.

Country mile, yard of ale, references to acres, and a foot seems a very reasonable rough estimating tool. Teach them in an amusing way with precise conversions for the important measures and a rough outline of old measures. Simple.

Butterfly Sam says:
13 January 2013

While we use mph and feet/inches to measure individual height/waist etc then even those under 30 are using imperial measurements on a daily basis.

Alex B says:
13 January 2013

I’m checking my calendar to make sure it’s not April 1st. In a country that decided to go metric in the 1960’s at around the same time we decided it was time to join the rest of the modern world and decimalise our currency, we should me ending any education in Imperial units and using the resources to complete the job properly.

Will we be asking our teachers to teach our children how to use LSD currency next? As much as we as a nation want to maintain our traditions and remember our history we also need to move with the times if we want to remain part of the modern world and not merely become a museum nation.

“A country that decided to go metric in the 1960’s”.?

Pardon me I think you will find it was a Government decision that was not received with any enthusiasm by the people. Of course it is beneficial for industry and they were the drivers for the change. So let’s not pretend that the people were demanding it.

Lets get a grip on what the curriculum change is actually requiring – I think it is a minimal requirement that could almost be taught in English or History – but for the fact that a lot of heritage equipment and devices require a basic knowledge of the conversion factors. Ignoring them in school is not going to make Imperial sizes disappear from existing machines and buildings.

BTW as English takes over the World I look forward to people suggesting that teaching Welsh and Gaelic should also be banned from curriculums …. ! Any takers?

Alex B says:
13 January 2013

“Pardon me I think you will find it was a Government decision that was not received with any enthusiasm by the people”

I beg to differ… I’ve even seen an article in the Daily Mail at the time that said it was a really good thing. If the job had been done properly and completed in the 1970’s as had been intended the whole thing would now have been a non issue.

“Pardon me I think you will find it was a Government decision that was not received with any enthusiasm by the people”
Diesel you are totally wrong, Alex is totally right.
There was a lot of suppoort to go metric, even metric only rulers tapes and so on were already in the shops.
The problem only arose when we joined the EU, or whatever it was then, and the anti EU brigade made it a political football. That is the ONLY reason we did not complete. If we had not joined the EU we would have rolled over and many today would never have known any different.
The rest of the commonwealth decided along with us to go metric also, they all completed, we are still dithering.
In any case this article was a non event, only picked up by the telegaph, Mail and which? in a anti metric frenzy. It was also said no significant changes to the curriculum will be made.
When USA converts ahead of us and we are out in the cold, we will see just how much the media will start saying “this should have been done years ago”.

Stimpy says:
23 March 2013

I can never work out why those who like metric are so militant about it! Or is it imperial supporters being a ‘state of being’ and so have a strong view over their “normal” so to speak.

It’s like gay pride. 3% or so are gay but if you see a street march/demo you’d think almost everyone was gay!

The vast majority of Brits prefer and/or wish the handy dual scenario continues as an unique ‘choose the best unit for the application’ system.

Yet you still hear the minority shouting and pressing the thumbs down button. Brits, on the whole, are uninterested in the topic so long as it doesn’t affect them

Phil says:
13 January 2013

The railways still use Imperial units. Probably the last place you’ll hear people talking about chains (22 yards) and then there’s the SLU or Standard Length Unit which is 7 yards.

Alex B says:
13 January 2013

And (from the little I know) new railways use metric. Before HS1 was complete we had the laughable situation where drivers of the TGV’s from Paris to London had to switch to MPH on leaving our side of the channel tunnel.

I don’t have a particular problem with Imperial being taught in schools provided this is in history or geography lessons rather than science. It would also be worth touching on other commonly used systems such as the customary units still used in the United States which have similar names to Imperial unites but often with significantly different values (e.g. mpg still used in the UK is quite different from mpg in the USA).

Cameron says:
13 January 2013

I am a 15 year old and I still measure my height in feet and my weight in stone. I do believe that we should use one or the other. We still measure distance in miles while we sell fuel in litres; we need to stick with one. At school we do get into trouble for using imperial measurements but frankly, that’s what we understand.

So what kind of employment are you hoping to get using and understanding feet and stone?
Frankly if I were a 15 year old I would be ashamed to admit that in public.
Do yourself a favour and start following your school and learn metric and try to forget Imperial outside of history.

@ JR,
Yes, some relevance maybe, but that decreases by the day (hopefully)! Far more useful though to know the metric and be able to reverse engineer it IF and when needed, than vice versa.
As for the other bits, milk in pints is a non event, that is mostly litres anyway. Pints in the pub, well I guess that means something to some people, especially if you have to serve it. I don’t really see why you need to be taught that in school though, it seems that is learnt quite well in university I understand. Alcohol content is in ml per litre.
Miles on the road is the sticking point though. But even here miles on signposts are the same miles as on the odometer, as are the mph signs the same mph as on the speedo, just match them up and all is OK. Don’t try to co-ordinate tenths of a mile on the odometer with 1/3 mile on the motorway sign while driving though, I had a 100mph opps doing that in 1969. Stopping distances are in metres though and that is where the spatial awareness and understanding of metric distances are needed. Off the road and into the woods and countryside then metres and km take over. Ordnance survey maps went metric way back in the early 1960. Most walking distances are metres. As for story books, Noah’s Ark was built in cubits, that always made me smile in assembly, but I see little point in learning it in the classroom. Not knowing makes the story that more interesting (sic).
But it’s OK if you want me to say “sorry, I am wrong” to the young person, go and learn all there is to know about the hundreds of daft measures there are out there, one of them may come in handy one day. But make sure you know the difference between UK and USA measures, that adds another 50 or so units.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

Ashamed? On the use of numbers to denote attributes of things? We’ve been invaded by weird robots pretending to be British!!!

Phil H says:
13 January 2013

The proposal to give greater emphasis to conversions is a cop out. The real solution is to phase out imperial decisively in British society. If we continue to teach it in schools then we only burden future generations with an unnecessary muddle of two incompatible systems.
Re the remarks by an ex-math teacher above: Fractions are essential yes but not for measurement. All measurments are approximate and it is far easier to express measurment data and do calculations in decimal. Fractions have a different role in maths. They need to be understood in principle before decimals are understood. The latter are fracrtions where the denominator are powers of ten. Arithmetic is easier with decimal because the common denominator is immediately obvious. Why do things the hard way?

Having grown up with the good old British avoirdupois, I like the idiosyncracy of the Imperial measurements but I am 100% [or “totally” in historic terms] in favour of consolidating the metric system in the UK.

I had forgotten about avoirdupois. I think it’s when a French waiter asks if you would like some peas. 🙂

Most of the government ministers are too young to remember what learning the imperial system entailed. Which subjects do they intend to cut to enable the imperial system to be taught properly, or do they intend doing a hatchet job?

cliff says:
13 January 2013

Young Cameron’s post shocks and dismays me but it doesn’t surprise me. His comments graphically illustrate the results of the original decision by the government of the time to make the metric changeover to metric units voluntary rather than mandatory. Nobody was forced or even encouraged to change by anyone so they just didn’t bother. What chance does Cameron and his peers have in the workplace when he is competing against others educated abroad who are more knowledgeable in something as basic as measurement? The governments reaction to this lack of knowledge is not to fix the situation but rather to except it and make do. It’s as if the government realises its anti-smoking campaign is not working so it gives up and decides to teach the kids how to make roll-ups and blow smoke-rings.
Since it was the leaders of British industry (are there any left?) who started the metrication ball rolling back in 1965 perhaps they could now start pouring some money and effort into making changes and convincing the population of the benefits of a complete changeover to the metric system. The government, this government and previous governments, obviously have no idea. Maybe industrialists could pay the cost of converting all the road signs to metric since the Department for Transport claim that money is the only thing stopping them from doing it. It would benefit British industry tremendously to have a properly educated workforce and improve the image of Great Britain PLC to show that the country is able to compete with the rest of the world and is not a rusting backwater that cannot come to terms with the twenty first century.

The decision to metricate was taken in 1965 and the infrastructure neccessary to support metrication (legislation, rewriting of British Standards, school syllabii etc), was in place by 1970. Cameron was born in 1966 and Gove in 1967 so have no first-hand understanding of what teaching the imperial system means.

IrvSwerve says:
14 January 2013

Despite some people expressing their alienation to the Imperial system, does ANYONE use
anything but miles per gallon to express the fuel efficiency of cars?

Alex B says:
14 January 2013

I did a bit of an experiment a few years back and tried to go as completely metric as I possibly could… so I use L/100km exclusively and after some initial confusion have found it much easier to cope with. Because 100km is so close to 60mi it’s much easier to think about how many litres you’ll use on a journey than it is to convert litres to gallons.

My only problem comes when discussing fuel consumption with friends, at least until starting to look at new cars recently to find that despite the law requiring it at least one manufacturer doesn’t include metric fuel consumption figures in their brochures (at least not online anyway).

cliff says:
14 January 2013

I have a 112 kW car that gets 8 or 9 L/100km on long trips. I must admit that I spend most of my time in Australia now and people here would scratch their heads if I quoted fuel consumption in miles per gallon even if I could remember it. The nice thing about quoting fuel consumption in metric is the lower the the figure, the lower the consumption. Since petrol hasn’t been sold in gallons in the UK for about 25 years it seems pretty silly to use a nonexistent quantity in quoting fuel consumption so why not use L/100km? The UK is more likely to catch up with kilometres eventually than go back to gallons.

Changing from mpg to l/100 km is conceptually a bit difficult because in one case a higher figure is better and in the other a lower figure is desirable.

In the UK, fuel consumption figures are published in both mpg and l/100 km. It does not really matter what the motorist uses. Likewise, it does not matter if we think of our weight in stones and pounds and our weight in feet and inches, since hospitals and GP surgeries keep their records in metric.

Though I am strongly in favour of completing the metrication process, it does not worry me in the slightest what individuals choose to do, though I think it is rather unkind to inflict this on school kids.

Alex B says:
14 January 2013

Actually wavechange when you mention the medical aspect you come up with a very good reason why two incompatible systems should not be maintained. I have an example from only yesterday:

Both human and animal medicine are entirely metric in the UK. Dogs, cats, babies and older people are always measured in metric by medical staff and metric units are used exclusively in order to ensure the right doses of medicines are used, this is particularly important in the case of anaesthetic or high strength medicines for those seriously ill.

Yesterday my girlfriend was buying Frontline flea treatment for her sister’s dog. Although that dog will have been weighed by the vet in kg for some reason she had passed on the weight as “44 pounds” so when the sales assistant at Costco checked the weight ranges on the packet (I recall them being up to 20kg and over 20kg with no imperial indications given) the two of them were instantly stumped… so out comes my iPhone and I converted to, would you believe, almost exactly 20kg.

So what would happen if a baby is rushed into a hospital for emergency treatment? Perhaps a family on holiday in another country? The doctor asks if you know the weight… “x pounds and y ounces” or “xyz stones” in the case of an adult. Out comes the calculator… and you’ve just added a major reason why a mistake could occur resulting in an overdose.

In fact I seem to recall a news story a few years ago where a doctor right here in Britain did just that.

If you know your weight (and your child’s weight) in kg then you can provide the correct information and feel safe in the knowledge that no conversion errors are going to occur.

But no, it’s traditional to weigh babies in lubs and ozzies and grown ups in stones so that outweighs (pun intended) every other factor.

I use miles per litre, seems the only sensible way to me.

par ailleurs says:
14 January 2013

This one’s a bit like a giant dinosaur gradually starving to death in whatever catastrophe it was that finally did for them!
We are like it or not, a European country in practical terms. We need to work the same way and in all practical commercial terms we already do. No one on the continent has a clue about feet, inches, pounds, ounces or gallons and why should they? This stuff is a lovely part of our island history and should stay in the history books. I happen to love the English language as written by Chaucer but I’m scarcely expecting people to write like that now. Ditto King James Bible, Shakespeare and Dickens. Of course it’s nice to understand it and its contribution to the development of modern language and the same applies to Imperial weights and measures. Ultimately those who really need a working knowledge of it to deal with the biggest dinosaurs of all-the Americans-can learn what’s necessary in a very short time. And of course the scientists will already be metric anyway!
Michael Gove is an old style Tory politician of the worst kind. He hasn’t a clue about the real world of education and is probably one of the worst people for the job. Hindering the final change to metric is doing no more than pandering to the so-called ‘metric martyrs’ one of whom seemed to join in here. Most of them are basically just afraid of something new just like a lot of people were when they had to learn to use computers for work and who worries about that now? It’s not as if there’s anything difficult to learn by going metric is there. Anyone for compound interest for a year at
3 1/2 % on £5 4s 6 1/2d. How about working out the price per sq. ft. of a plot measuring 7yds 2 ft 3ins by 3 yds 1 ft 2ins at 12/6d per sq.ft?
OK, I just know that someone’s going to do it in about 3 minutes flat but I’m sure you get my drift!

I actually wrote to Mr. Andrew Percy MP (the author of the written question to which Michael Gove replied). I didn’t even expect an answer, but got one within minutes. And not just a brush-off for not being one of his constituents either, but a polite well-argued piece pointing out that since the roads are still in imperial, at least a working knowledge of miles and yards is desirable amongst the population.

I replied pointing out that the proposed solution is being applied at the wrong end. If no-one understands miles and yards properly, then it is is time to switch to metres and kilometres. A one-off cost, rather than the continuous cost of having to keep teaching miles and yards to every child who goes through school.

Mr Percy again replied (within the hour!) pointing out that changing the roadsigns had not been regarded as an option by the previous government, and that their policy was still the case in the eyes of this present government.

Partly “because it would cost too much” which I guess refers to the Department for Transport’s infamously inflated estimate from at least ten years ago that it would cost £750 million to change the signs.

More like £75 million really, I believe. Small change in the context of the roads budget.

cliff says:
14 January 2013

Why doesn’t the British government ask the EU for funding to pay for the road signs to be converted? It seems a perfectly reasonable request to me. I’d love to see the headlines in the tabloids.

The EU has told us we can take all the time we want to go metric. They do not care.
For as long as UK (and US) has this metric muddle, then Europe, and the the rest of the world has a small but significant manufacturing and production advantage over us. They are happy for that to continue for as long as we wish to suffer.

Stimpy says:
22 March 2013

Didn’t he say that no-one really cared?

BTW – imperial has been in the curriculum since the early 1990’s so I’m not sure what we’tr arguing about

IrvSwerve says:
14 January 2013

Cliff, what the hell is a 112 kW car?
Makes sense if it is an electric one.
Ever heard of Brake Horse Power?
And buying petrol in gallons is easy
when you know that 4.54 litres equals
an Imperial gallon.
In all those US road movies the gasoline
prices we see when they fill up seem so
ridiculously cheap partly because the
American gallon is 4/5 of ours.

Have a look at this page on the Which? website:

It explains the different units commonly used to express the power of car engines and has a calculator to convert from one to another.

Greg T says:
14 January 2013

Oh dear IvySwerve, the level of ignorance in the UK is worse than I thought

I think you have that round the wrong way IrvSwerve. That is a remark we would expect from top gear. What the hell have horses got to do with modern cars? Have you really any idea how much work a horse can do?
Although it should probably be in joules now, kw is the unit mostly used by the rest of the world, it is in your car handbook somewhere. It will be the unit your car engine is designed in almost certainly. It is a measure of power and measures the amount of power an engine produces. It gives a direct comparison to, say, the amout of electricity you use in the home. After all, that is where your electricity comes from in the first place, engines, big engines, steam turbine engines of up to 500 Mw output power.

Greg T, Yes, exactly.

>>> Although it should probably be in joules now, kw is the unit mostly used by the rest of the world, <<<

Joule is the SI unit of work. Watt is the SI unit of power. One joule per second = one watt.

You do not measure engine power output in joules, only the total energy generated over a given period of time.

The SI system is generally the professional measurement system used in the UK and is taught. What we choose to use in our private lives however is entirely up to us – whether its our weight, height, fuel consumption or whatever. Teaching should be based in the SI system, but there is nothing wrong with giving an understanding of the imperial system, as it is still partly in use. Regarding road sign changes, when times are hard, what’s the point in spending unecessary money? Our county spent £2 million changing speed limits. In one case it cost £10 000 to move a thirty mph sign 200 yards – better things to spend money on, like pot hole repairs?

IrvSwerve says:
14 January 2013

Brian AC Whats wrong with loving these old
units with all their historic connections? The
academics called it a Horsepower because
they measured the work a typical farm horse
could do in an hour as 550 ft-lbs per second
& is equal to about 746 watts.
So imagine a Shire horse dragging a quarter ton
plough across a field for an hour at the speed
of a foot per second
A more graphic image to explain Power to a
child than the definition of a Watt.

“A more graphic image to explain Power to a child than the definition of a Watt.”

Well that’ll make it easy: “Darling, think about a big horse pulling a quarter ton weight. Then think about 100 of those under the bonnet. And if Daddy buys the other one, we can have 130 under the bonnet!”

Your logic is as ridiculous as the idea that we should be even using Imperial units. Just the basic decimal nature is enough to recommend metric, let alone the fact that almost anywhere else in the world they’ll understand you better.

“a quarter ton” – that’s a dangerous thing to say, as it sounds identical to “tonne” or could be confused with a US ton. All three are slightly different weights. (Or should that be masses?)

Even the Continentals have their quirks – a metric horsepower. = 735.5 W, 98.6% of an Imperial horsepower. Slightly smaller horses, probably.
It is sometimes useful to be able to visualise the magnitude of a unit of measurement. Light intensity is measured in Candelas. The unit was based on a pure spermacetti candle, weighing one sixth of a pound, burning at a rate of 120 grains per hour. One candela was emitted in all directions by such a candle. This unit is a base SI unit, although it became defined in SI units.